Fighting Gliders of World War II

Posted on Fri, May 8, 2020
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“…the combat glider, the only aircraft built to crash.”

Gen. William C. Westmoreland, U.S. Army

 

Concentration of force is the essence of military action. Germany’s surprise attack and swift victory over 650 troops stationed inside Ft. Eben-Emael during World War II on May 10, 1940, showed a new way to do this: landing military gliders filled with infantry in precise locations.

That day, 78 troops (and their equipment) boarded 11 DFS 230 assault gliders, which were towed by 11 German Ju 52 transports to a point 8,500 feet over Aachen, Germany, where the gliders released and coasted silently for 20 or so miles across a sliver of Holland before sliding to a landing inside the fort’s walls. The glider-borne German paratroops neutralized the ‘impregnable’ Ft. Eben-Emael in about 20 minutes. Other German troops aboard another 30 DFS 230 gliders attacked three bridges vital to the invasion of Belgium and France.

Military planners around the world took note of Germany’s tactics that day. The U.S. Army and the U.S. Marine Corps started programs to design and build assault gliders and train and equip crews to fly them. 

Building U.S. Army Gliders

In February 1941, based on information about the capture of Ft. Eben-Emael, U.S. Army Air Forces Commanding General Hap Arnold ordered the development of an assault glider to carry 15 troops. The efforts to create a new military organization, equip it with new technology, and train operators and maintainers amounted to a wartime emergency that was troubled from the start. Proven U.S. manufacturers of airplanes that were not already fulfilling government contracts for military aircraft were reluctant to get involved. Some claimed that their factories were too small while others thought the whole idea untested and too risky.

Several different types and sizes of fighting gliders were built, but only the Waco Aircraft Company finished a prototype glider that could meet all of the Army’s structural and flight test requirements for the workhorse 15-seat type called the CG-4A. The production model weighed 3,900 pounds empty and could fly at an emergency weight of 9,000 pounds. The Waco could haul several different cargoes in addition to the pilot and copilot: 13 infantry soldiers and their gear; a jeep and four passengers; or a 75mm howitzer cannon and 18 rounds of ammunition plus three passengers. A tow plane such as the Douglas C-47 could haul the Waco at 150 mph and a skilled pilot could stop the glider in a few hundred feet, depending on the load carried and the ground conditions. The glider was designed to land intact for use in repeated airborne assaults, but combat operations took their toll and most crash-landed, damaging many beyond repair. The 16 U.S. companies contracted to build gliders completed a total of 13,909 Waco CG-4As before World War II ended. 

Waco CG-4A glider

Waco CG-4A glider on the ground, probably at Wright Field, Ohio, October 12, 1942. (NASM WF-101419)

Training American Glider Pilots

Lacking enough time to think through the training requirements to accurately simulate the performance characteristics of an assault glider, the Army contracted with established sailplane manufacturers to build trainers for glider pilots and copilots. The first results resembled sporting sailplanes that did not fly like assault gliders. A good example of this misguided design approach is the Museum’s Frankfort TG-1A, designed by Stan Corcoran and restored by Lewiston University in Illinois, and now displayed at our Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia. 

blue and yellow glider

Frankfort TG-1A training glider at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

The number of trained glider pilots General Arnold required grew from 1,000 to 6,000 by early 1942. Army planners, training staff, and glider manufacturers could hardly keep up. Even after stateside training increased, there was still a shortage of volunteers to train as glider pilots and in Europe, Army leaders had to order pilots from fighter and bomber units to join the glider forces. The U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Navy ran their own independent glider programs. 

Gliders in the Marine Corps

The Marine Corps ordered “air troops” to form in October 1940 and began to consider how to use gliders in combat after the German airborne invasion of the Mediterranean island of Crete in May 1941. The Marines’ first test flights of the XLRQ-1 amphibious assault glider using a Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boat and a Grumman J2F Duck amphibian happened in October 1942. Marine glider pilot training started in November 1941 but the Marine Corps terminated the glider program in June 1943.

U.S. and British doctrine made assault glider operations an integral part of the paratroop  infantry, but the glider infantry did not wear parachutes. They rode their gliders to the ground and into battle. It is regrettable that Allied military planners did not better heed the costly results of Germany’s May 1941 assault on Crete. It became known as the “graveyard of the Germany airborne” division. The British army defenders on the island exacted a heavy toll on the 13,000 attacking German airborne troops. Seven hundred and fifty infantry soldiers successfully landed on Crete in gliders. The defenders shot down 350 glider tow planes and paratroop transports and casualties among the glider and airborne soldiers numbered more than 5,100 killed or wounded. The vital lesson of Crete was that coordinating large formations of tow planes and gliders to arrive at their landing zones (LZ) on time was nearly impossible. A combination of mechanical problems with tow planes or the gliders and the unpredictable weather foiled planners who often scheduled the gliders to land at different times and in different LZs. 

Gliders During the Sicily Campaign

The first large Allied airborne assault with gliders and paratroops was during the Sicily Campaign in July 1943. It did not go well. After flying 450 miles in tow from bases in North Africa, anti-aircraft fire, some of it friendly; haze; clouds; smoke from previous attacks; and fierce winds that whipped up sand and obscured visibility contributed to a military disaster for the glider pilots and their troops. In one tragic incident, American and British tow planes released 65 fighting gliders too early. The gliders carried men of the First Air Landing Brigade and they landed in the sea and more than 250 drowned. Eventually Sicily fell to the Allies but casualties numbered more than 20,000.

Gliders in Burma

To help supply Brig. Gen. Ord Wingate’s irregular force of Chindit special operations units in their campaign to battle the Japanese army in Burma and reopen the Burma Road linking India and China, President Roosevelt ordered General Arnold to form a small air force called the 1st Air Commando Group. Arnold selected Col. Philip C. Cochran to command the unit. Starting in March 1944, Waco CG-4A gliders landed troops, ammunition, medical supplies, and even mules to supply Wingate’s troops deep in the jungle. Some gliders carried three mules plus a soldier ordered to shoot the first mule that broke loose inside the glider. Very few mules misbehaved. In one of three main phases of the campaign, 36 of 68 gliders that were launched failed to reach their LZ but overall, the operation succeeded in moving more than 9,000 Chindit fighters 165 miles behind Japanese lines. The Allied forces also used twin-engine transports to snatch up gliders filled with wounded soldiers and fly them back to hospitals.

Gliders on D-Day

The Allies used fighting gliders to land infantry, arms, and supplies during the Invasion of Normandy, France, in June 1944. Gen. Omar Bradley planned to drop paratroops and fighting gliders carrying infantry and equipment about 6-10 miles behind the German lines east of Utah Beach beginning the night of June 5. The goal was to support the 4th Infantry Division during their amphibious landings at Utah Beach by capturing four causeways leading inland.

Despite effective anti-aircraft fire and the difficulty that some tow planes had reaching the correct drop points, the air assault achieved most of its objectives.

gliders and C-47

On D-Day, Douglas C-47 Troop carrying planes of the 9th AF, towing gliders loaded with airborne infantry are on the way to the French coast to participate in the initial assault behind enemy lines. (NARA 342FH-3A-17429-51600-AC)

Caption: On 'D-Day' Douglas C-47 Troop carrying planes of the 9th AF, towing gliders loaded with airborne infantry are on the way to the French coast to participate in the initial assault behind enemy lines. National Archives and Records Administration, 342FH-3A-17429-51600-AC.

Gliders in Operation Market-Garden

In August 1944, the Allies launched Operation Dragoon to liberate the port cities of Toulouse and Marseille in southern France. Heavy fog made it difficult to land some gliders, but losses overall were light compared to the next airborne operation to use gliders a month later, Operation Market-Garden. It began September 17, 1944, and ended on September 25. The glider and airborne troops had to fly 300 miles from bases in England to landing zones (LZs) 64 miles behind German lines and near the towns of Eindhoven and Nijmegen in the Netherlands. Initially, the glider pilots succeeded in landing in or near the planned LZs, but German forces in the area were considerably larger and better equipped than expected. The glider and airborne soldiers had been set on a rigid schedule to capture and hold nine vital bridges that would allow British ground forces approaching from the south to reinforce them. Meeting these objectives also depended on timely resupply drops from the air. Bad weather and a cascading series of other delays allowed the Germans to hold key bridges at Arnhem and ultimately cut off the British ground force before it could get close enough to help. The strategic objective, securing a Rhine River crossing, and perhaps finishing the war by December 1944, failed. Nonetheless, the initial assault with gliders was successful. 

Gliders at the Battle of the Bulge

Two months later on December 26, 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge, 11 CG-4A gliders landed inside the 101st Airborne Division perimeter around Bastogne, Belgium, to deliver medical staff, gasoline, and artillery ammunition. Fifty more gliders arrived the next day. In March 1945, two gliders landed inside the Allied bridgehead on the German side of the Rhine River at Remagen, Germany. Once they were loaded with 36 wounded soldiers, twin-engine transports snatched them off the ground and into the air and towed the two Wacos to a field hospital in France.

Operation Varsity

Operation Varsity, which took place on March 24, 1945, was the largest airborne operation ever conducted in one day. To support Gen. Bernard Montgomery’s army as it crossed the Rhine, more than 21,000 glider infantry and paratroopers landed on the German side of the river in one day to engage German forces that might impede the army’s crossing. Six hundred and ten C-47 transports towed 906 Waco gliders (some transports towed more than 1 glider). The entire armada of airborne forces, including British units and aircraft, stretched 200 miles. The Allies lost more men and gliders during Varsity than any other wartime airborne operation, in part because landings were attempted in broad daylight, which made the gliders easy targets for German anti-aircraft batteries.

gliders

Allied gliders dot the German landscape behind the German front lines on the Rhine. Parachute troops were dropped, 24 March 1945, in advance of the Rhine crossing ground troops. (NARA 342FH-3A-20137-56791-AC)

Gliders in the Pacific

American army units in the Pacific Theater used gliders, but never in large numbers. In October 1944, four gliders landed in Hidden Valley, New Guinea, to set up a weather station and emergency airstrip in the Owen Stanley Mountains. The gliders landed men and supplies that were used to hack an airstrip out of the jungle large enough for C-47 transports to use. The weather station continued operating until the end of the war. At the end of the campaign to drive the Japanese out of the Philippines, six CG-4As and a CG-13 glider air assaulted the Camalaniugan Airfield at the northern tip of Luzon Island, Philippines, in June 1945.

Gliders Post-World War II

During World War II, U.S. companies built 14,612 gliders and the U.S. military trained more than 6,000 pilots to fly them. Paratroops still jump today from airplanes into battle, but the fighting gliders never saw combat again after the war ended. Their place in the evolution of warfare is nevertheless quite important. The fighting gliders showed military planners the potential advantages of filling special-purpose aircraft with troops and equipment and landing them behind enemy frontlines. Today this is called ‘vertical envelopment’ and another technology, introduced in the last months of the war, became the ultimate instrument of vertical envelopment: the helicopter.

Russell Lee is a curator in the Aeronautics Department and responsible for the glider collection.

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